Saturday, 21 January 2017

Philip the Arab, Rome's Millennium and the Rise of Christianity

We are so used to east and west being opposed to each other that we forget that Rome had an Arab emperor. More than that, he was the empire’s first Christian ruler and celebrated the city’s millennium. And all in five years.

Marcus Julius Philippus, dubbed Philippus Arabus, Philip the Arab, was born in Shahba, south of Damascus, in the Province of Arabia in c.204 AD and was the son of a local citizen Julius Marinus. The cognomen Julius suggests one of his ancestors was given citizenship under one of the Julian dynasty. During his reign Philip had the Senate deify Marinus, a rare occasion where someone other than an emperor or empress received the Romano-Greek ceremony of Apotheosis. Possibly Philip was cocking a snook at the whole process, if he were himself a Christian.

Philip was helped in his reign by his elder brother, Gaius Julius Priscus, who received the title Rector Orientis, a quasi-emperor. Later he probably would have been made eastern emperor, but the bad example of Caracalla and Geta fresh in senatorial minds probably precluded that. Priscus had however held several imperial posts before this.

What we are seeing is an attempt to consolidate Arab power within the empire. Caracalla was half-Syrian through his mother, Julia Domna. This brings up the question as to whether the two families were linked. Julia Domna was descended from the priest-kings of El-Gebal at Emesa (modern Homs); these were a Bedouin dynasty who had ruled in that area for several hundred years. El-Gebal (God of the Mountain) was worshipped by a black holy stone, foreshadowing Islam, and possibly linked to the lapis niger in the Roman Forum. The priest-kings of  Emesa took the Roman names Gaius Julius in AD14, perhaps to mark Augustus who died that year, added to which was their personal name; one has ‘Asiscus’, that is, Aziz.

Roman coins exist showing the black stone topped by an eagle, showing an effort to align the symbolism of Rome and Emesa. Clearly the best known emperor was Elagabalus, who has been a favourite since a comic description of him by Gibbon.

Antoninus coin of Uranius Alexander, showing Black Stone of El-Gabal on the reverse.

Philip’s brother, Gaius Julius Priscus, carries the same name as the priest-kings of Emesa; ‘priscus’ means ‘pure’, just the sort of cognomen a religious man might adopt. Modern Homs is quite close to the sea, but a man might receive a cognomen of ‘Marinus’ if he came back to it from military service in the Roman navy or from simply living for a while by the sea. In a previous posting, I discussed a ‘St Marina’ and a ‘St Pelagia’ of Syria who seem to be the same person.

So I speculate that the family of Philip the Arab were (or claimed to be) related to the former imperial family. Shahba is in modern Jordan and was only a modest village; the emperor turned it into Philippopolis and endowed it with the sort of buildings a major city would expect to have. This was a vast expense and may ultimately have hastened his overthrow.

Certain family names crop up in the royal family of Emesa which had an impact on the wider empire: Iotapus/ Iotapa; Bassianus/ Bassiana; Iamblicus; Balbillus/ Balbilla.

Caracalla was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus, and the real name of Elagabalus was Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, while his cousin Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus ruled as Alexander Severus. It does show that the Bassianus clan of Syria was as important as or even more important than the Severus name.

Iotapus/ Iotapa is a name from Commagene, the area discussed in my previous posting. Balbillus/ Balbilla is a Syrian name, and the family of Julia Balbilla, the sister of Philopappos, mentioned repeatedly in her poems.

Iamblichus was an Emesene writer, author of the Babyloniaka, written in Greek, a romantic novel, but deriving from Babylonian stories. It was written towards the end of the second century AD. He was a relative of the empress Julia Domna, and may have been part of the salon of writers she developed. He was also a cousin of Gaius Julius Sohaemus, who had been a Roman senator and allegedly consul (though I can’t find this name on the consular lists) before becoming King of Armenia 144-61 and 163-86. It does show how flexible identity had become, and how layered.

There were probably other Babylonian stories floating around the Graeco-Roman world in the early empire. Ovid has the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in the Metamorphoses. It’s the only one of his stories to have no known precursor, so it’s likely to come from a Syrian original (there is a river Pyramos in ancient Syria). Other well-known myths such as Venus and Adonis and Diana and Actaeon derive from Syrian sources (discussed in Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox, Penguin 2008).

The double, parallel nature of local identity within the eastern part of the empire is shown by the usurper who sought to overthrow Severus Alexander. His real name was Sampsiceramus and he was a priest of El Gebal at Emesa, and was related to its royal family. He took the name Lucius Julius Aurelius Sulpicius Severus Uranius Antoninus, but is generally known as Uranius Alexander. There is a tendency throughout history that the longer and more grandiose the name, the weaker the link to power.

His coins show only Greek lettering and portray the temple of El-Gebal with its pre-Islamic black stone, but are dated according to the system of the Seleucid kingdom, a Hellenistic creation, not to the local, Greek or Roman systems. This is an interplay of various norms, as if he was feeling his way how best to balance various benefits and liabilities. Although of course, Rome has its own lapis niger, which was in turn given aetiological interpretation.

Finally, Zenobia, the famous queen of Palmyra who weakened Roman rule in the middle east, claimed descent from Julia Domna, although she also claimed descent from Cleopatra and even Dido Queen of Carthage, who is a myth.

Painting of Julia Domna, with her distinctive Syrian hairstyle.

A lot clearly turns on Julia Domna, who was born in AD170 in Emesa and married the future emperor Septimius Severus when she was just seventeen, five years before he became emperor; according to the Historia Augusta, she married the widower general on the basis of a favourable horoscope. Her entourage included Philostratus, author of the Life of the Sophists and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a first century wonder worker performing miracle in Palestine at the same time as Christ. She committed suicide at 47 after the murder of Caracalla by Macrinus; apparently she went on hunger strike.

Returning to Philip, he does show the continuing level of involvement of Arabs in the empire beyond the Severans. Besides deifying his father and making his brother almost joint emperor, and spending taxpayers’ money embellishing his home village, he made his infant son co-Augustus, with the intention of him succeeding. The failure of dynasty in the third century crisis seems to have been a clash between the public taste for stability versus the ambitions unleashed when dynasties imploded.

Philip increased his popularity by celebrating the millennium of the foundation of Rome; by tradition, it had been founded in 753BC, so AD247 marked its millennium. Philip used the Secular Games and repackaged the resources intended to be the triumph of Gordian III against the Persians (Gordian had died). To some extent the Millennium Games in Rome were intended to distract the Roman masses from the Persian failure.

Whether or not Rome had actually reached its millennium, the Romans thought it had. Claudius had held Secular Games in AD47, to mark Rome’s 800th anniversary, in 148 under Antoninus Pius and so Philip was just doing what emperors did. Modern commentators have argued that since the Secular Millennial Games would have involved pagan sacrifices and as a Christian Philip would have been forbidden to do so. The only recent sacrifice was a batch of ritual cakes, and the games lasted just three days. As the Church was then undercover and papal supremacy had not yet been established, Philip’s approach might have been heterodox, but there was no mechanism to consider him a heretic.

Coin with a bearded Philip the Arab, showing the secular games column on the reverse
The imperial biographer and chronicler Eusebius, writing during the reign of Constantine, claims that Philip was a Christian, and that he tried to celebrate Easter at Antioch, but was turned away as a sinner by St Babylas, a powerful Antiochene bishop whose memorial church was a hundred and ten years later seen as a block to the temple of Apollo at Daphne, which was destroyed by Christian fanatics under Julian. The same story about Babylas making Philip wait with the common people features in a homily by John Chrysostom. Modern scholars have claimed this as untrue, but given that Eusebius was born in nearby Caesarea in AD260 to an eastern Christian family, this snub of an emperor would have been spoken of in his youth, since it had happened only twelve years before.

An unbearded Philip the Arab, in a classical bust at St Petersburg

The doubt about whether Philip was a Christian may be shown by his imagery: his coins show him bearded, as all adult emperors had been since Hadrian, but the statue shown above, which is in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, shows him clean shaven. Other than him, and child-emperors, emperors were always portrayed bearded until Constantine, after which they were universally clean-shaven, except for the pagan Julian, who wrote his famous rant Misopogon (the Beard Hater) while in  at Antioch in Syria.

Persecution of Babylas, medieval painting
The man who made Philip wait, archbishop Babylas of Antioch, was martyred in 253 at the instigation of the emperor Valerian as a result of a crackdown on Christians following Philip’s assassination in AD249. Babylas was thrown into prison in Antioch in 250 and died three years later. Philip was overthrown by the Urban Prefect Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, who managed to vanish in the Danube swamps while losing Dacia to the Goths in 251. Decius and his successor Valerian appear in Lactantius’ book On the Deaths of the Persecutors, written in the reign of Constantine. While he ignored Trebonianus Gallus (emperor 251-3), Lactantius made Decius and Valerian the first persecuting emperors since Domitian 150 years previously, and rejoiced in their juicy deaths.

The emperor Trajan Decius (r.249-251)

The persecutions of Decius only lasted a year and were mainly in Carthage, where surviving transcripts of investigations by magistrates show a reluctance to grant Christians the martyrdom they sought. All anyone had to do was obtain a certificate (libellus) that they had sacrificed to the traditional gods, and knowing how prone the empire was to fraud, this could have been faked up easily enough. All religions, except Jews were targeted, and while many were killed, the Plague of Cyprian, which raged at the same time, killed a hundred times as many every day. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was beheaded, and much of the death tolls seems to have been in Egypt and Africa.

The Decian persecution of Christians lasted only eight years and had been preceded by 150 years of tolerance. Valerian’s son and successor Gallienus (r.253-68) oversaw the forty year ‘Little Peace of the Church’ in which Christianity thrived following imperial edicts which recognised the religion, its places of worship and property. While this was ended in the west by Maximian, Christianity was in a much stronger position thanks initially to Philip the Arab.

The focus of persecuting regimes on harming people in Africa, Syria, Egypt and away from Europe does seem to show a desire to rid the Roman Empire of a powerful oriental element. Never after this would a non-European hold power in the empire.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Commagene, Crossroads of Empire

Commagene in southern Anatolia was a Roman province from AD79 onwards, something which may have slipped the attention of many, since it occurred at the same moment that Vesuvius was destroying Pompeii.

It had originated as a Hurrian kingdom called Kummukh, speaking a variety of the language which became Armenian. There is a discussion of its early 9th century BC inscriptions in The Boyepinari Inscription of Panamuwatis of Commagene by Gabriel Soultanian. This was a literate state at least 150 years before Homer enlightened the Greeks.

In the wake of Alexander’s invasion, Commagene rapidly developed a Hellenistic royal culture, and for some time avoided domination by Europeans and Persians alike.

This is best seen at Mount Nemrut (Nemrud Dagi in Turkish), a religious site which illustrates the interplay of Greek and Persian religions. There, colossal statues were carved, which can be seen there to this day. A full description can be read in Herman Brijder’s book Nemrud Dagi: Recent Archaeological Research and Preservation and Restoration Activities in the Tomb Sanctuary on Mount Nemrud (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2014).

The Nemrut statues syncretise a number of gods from eastern and western traditions. They were erected for King Antiochus I Theos in 62BC. Of course, Theos means ‘god’ and the Commagenean kings were considered living gods, something that was not going to please the Romans. The imperial cult of the Romans never worshipped the living emperor, only dead ones and then only a minority of them.

Antiochus I Theos was in turn following a similar cult centre (called a hierothesion) of his father Mithridates I Callinicus (r. 109BC-70BC). Groups of seated statues of gods and the god king sat in rows; their heads were later removed by Christians and ritually defaced, as can be seen in these photos.

Head of Zeus-Aramazd, Mount Nemrut

Head of Apollo-Mithra-Helios, Mount Nemrud

Head of Vahagn-Herakles, Mount Nemrut; note the nose damaged by Christians

 It is interesting to note in passing that in the Greek world, it is possible for a living person to be a saint, but in the west sainthood is always post mortem; I think this must echo attitudes in prior religions.

In classical Armenian religion, all the gods had once been living people, notably Vahagn, syncretised with Heracles, Aramazd, the Armenian form of the Persian Ahura Mazda, syncretised with Zeus, Astghik with Aphrodite/Ishtar. This relates to Persian cultural conquest of Armenia and neighbouring areas in the 7th century BC, after the era of Panamuwatis, where Khaldi was the chief god and formed a trinity with his sons Telspas and Shivini.

What we can see from this is an Anatolian culture which readily adopted and modified gods according to the winds of politics; rarely strong enough to assert itself, Commagene defeated its enemies by rolling with the punches. That is why Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion, and why eventually Islam took over the area so easily.

Antiochus’ son, Epiphanes, fought alongside Titus at the Siege of Jerusalem in 70AD, and met Flavius Josephus, who describes him as one of the richest tributary kings. The conversion of Commagene from independent, but neutralised, kingdom to Roman province came about in the 70s AD, when the Roman governor of Syria, Caesennius Paetus, wrote to Vespasian to tell him that the king of Commagene, Antiochus IV and his son Prince Epiphanes planned to revolt against Roman overlordship and ally instead with the Parthians. According to Josephus (Bel Jud 7.7) this was malicious and Antiochus was very loyal. Vespasian allowed Caesennius Paetus to invade the country’s capital Samosata with legio VI Ferrata from Syria and annexe Commagene to that province.

The whole deal turned odd when Antiochus and his sons left for Parthia, but then returned under imperial protection as honoured guests, received imperial honours and enough money to run a royal household (M. Speidel 2000, Early Roman Rule in Commagene). The sons were recognised as legitimate royals, and in AD109, Epiphanes’ son, known to us as Philopappos (literally ‘grandfather lover’) who had earlier been made a senator was elevated to Cos. Suffectus by Trajan.

Note there the subtle difference: not Consul Ordinaris, the ones who gave their names to the year, nor even suffect to the Consul Prior, but suffect to the Consul Posterior, and he didn’t even serve out the whole year, serving only from May to August. Hardly an honour at all. It seems like the former governor of Syria, Aulus Cornelius Palma Frontonianus (a member of the powerful Cornelius clan), who was Consul Prior at the start of AD109 and had the ear of Trajan, felt it would be politically useful to include Philopappos.

So who was Philopappos and how had the former royal family gone from enemies of Rome to the consulship in a generation? Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights notes that Philopappos was always referred to as ‘king’ (basileus) and referred to himself as such. His actual name at birth was Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes. There had to be something in it beyond just money. I suspect it was the ancestry of the Commagenian royal family, who were descended from the Seleucid rulers of Asia Minor and perhaps from the same family as Alexander the Great.

The Philopappos Monument, built in his honour by his sister after his death in AD116, gives him three distinct identities, as a Greek, a Roman and a Commagenian. The monument is on what was once the Mouseion Hill in Athens, close to the Acropolis. Pausanias, in his Guide to Greece (i.25.8), refers to this as ‘monument built for a Syrian man.’ This seems quite snotty, and we can assume Pausanias was looking for a way to denigrate Philopappos, who was not a Syrian, and whose mother was an Alexandrian Greek, Claudia Capitolina.

Philopappos Monument, Athens, detail

As a Roman, he was termed in Latin as ‘Caius Iulius Antiochus, son of Caius, of the Fabian tribe, consul and Arval brother, admitted to the praetorian rank by the emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Optimus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus’, stressing his voting tribe, his membership of the Arval Brotherhood and his close links to Trajan.

As a citizen of Athens, he is noted on another part of the monument in Greek as ‘Philopappos, son of Epiphanes of the deme of the Besa’. Note how his Roman names are missing and his father has gone from being Caius (or Gaius as we would say) and kept his real name, and his imperial and Roman titles are ignored, with his deme to the fore.

In a third niche, now lost, was a further title ‘King Antiochus Philopappos, son of King Antiochus Epiphanes’, again in Greek.

Philopappos Monument, long view

The sister who dedicated the monument was named Julia Balbilla, who was born in Rome, and unusually she was a writer, and even more curiously, four of her poems have survived:

When the August Hadrian Heard Memnon

Memnon the Egyptian I learnt, when warned by the rays of the sun,
speaks from Theban stone.
When he saw Hadrian, the king of all, before rays of the sun,
he greeted him - as far as he was able.
But when the Titan driving through the heavens with his steeds of white,
brought into shadow the second measure of hours,
like ringing bronze Memnon again sent out his voice.
Sharp-toned, he sent out his greeting and for a third time a mighty roar.
The emperor Hadrian then himself bid welcome to
Memnon and left on stone for generations to come.
This inscription recounting all that he saw and all that he heard.
It was clear to all that the gods love him.

When with the August Sabina I Stood Before Memnon

Memnon, son of Aurors and holy Tithon,
seated before Thebes, city of Zeus,
or Amenoth, Egyptian King, as learned.
Priests recount from ancient stories,
greetings, and singing, welcome her kindly,
the August wife of the emperor Hadrian.
A barbarian man cut off your tongue and ears:
Impious Cambyses; but he paid the penalty,
with a wretched death struck by the same sword point
with which pitiless he slew the divine Apis.
But I do not believe that this statue of yours will perish,
I saved your immortal spirit forever with my mind.
For my parents were noble, and my grandfathers,
the wise Balbillus and Antiochus the king.


Son of Aurora, I greet you. For you addressed me kindly,
Memnon, for the sake of the Pierides, who care for me,
song-loving Demo. And bearing a pleasant gift,
my lyre will always sing of your strength, holy one.

For pious were my parents and grandfathers:
Balbillus the Wise and King Antiochus;
Balbillus, the father of my mother of royal blood and King Antiochus, the father of my father. From their line I too draw my noble blood,
and these verses are mine, pious Balbilla.

These show a huge pride in Balbilla’s non-Roman ancestry, descended on her mother’s side from Balbillus, an Egyptian magician, and the ability for non-Romans to interact with the imperial family. Her mythological references marry Classical deities with Egyptian gods like Memnon and Apis, not syncretising them, but running each alongside the other.

Commagene found a way to negotiate a complex cultural identity without being swamped by any of it.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Isaurians – Rome’s homegrown barbarians

At the time Rome’s western empire ‘fell’ in AD476, the emperor in the east was a barbarian. The coins call him Zeno, a Greek name; however his real name was Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladadiotes and he was an Isaurian (reigned 474-91). Although notionally Roman citizens, the Isaurians were fiercely independent and antagonistic to Rome. So why were several emperors drawn from them, a people you might call homegrown barbarians?

The Divine Emperor Zeno

Isauria seems to have been a land that nobody else wanted. It’s located in what is now southern Turkey, next to Cicilia on the coast and Pamphylia to its west. To the north was Lycaonia and to its east was Commagene. These lands changed hands amongst Persians, Medes, Greeks and Romans, later Armenians and Turks. The Tarza (Tarsus) Mountains were their core territory, although at times they extended towards the coast and even onto Cyprus. As everyone knows, St Paul was born Saul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jewish tentmaker in the capital of the Province of Cicilia.

Dangerous Barbarians
Vainly the Romans planted cities in Isauria, or renamed them after famous Romans (Germanopolis, Claudiopolis, and even Zenopolis, the emperor’s birthplace, probably called Rusumblada until then). A fair comparison might be the renaming of places in Ireland by English and Scottish overlords.

The threat from the Isaurians can be seen in the myth of Typhon, a monster killed by Zeus. He seems to have been a local god of fire and earthquakes, portrayed by the Greeks as the father of Cerberus, the Chimera, the Sphinx and every other monster they could think of. Typhon is linked from Hesiod onwards as Cicilian, but the difference between Cicilia and Isauria seems to be political, not ethnic. But the Greeks and Romans, since at least the time of Hesiod, liked to portray the people of that area as not quite human.

A Necropolis in Isauria

Almost Useful Barbarians
Isauria overlaps too with the territory of Pamphylia, a land overrun early by Achaean Greeks c.1200BC, suggesting links with Troy. All the people of this area seem to have been Luwian speaking Hittites. The Isaurians are termed ‘Dorian’ by the Greeks, suggesting that they saw them as being very similar in attitudes to the Dorian Greeks, the ‘Sons of Hercules’, tough and violent upland dwellers, and indeed the Greeks claimed the Pamphylians were Dorians. What we seem to be seeing here is an attempt to impose a Greek identity onto Hittite/Luwian peoples. Lycaonia seems to be relate to the ancient Lukka people, and to names like Lycaeon of Troy, one of the sons of Priam, and to Lycaeon, king of Arcadia, son of Pelasgus in Greek myth and thus brother of Niobe and a dynast of the Pelasgians who at one point ruled Athens. Zeus was termed ‘Lykaios’ in the Arcadian festival of Lykaia.

This mythic muddle seems to point towards fusion and confusion of similar peoples with Greeks. A lot of the Greek myths draw on stories from Asia Minor.

How Roman is a Roman?
Lest anyone think that the emperor personified everything that was Roman, the rulers of the later empire often came from militarised districts. Diocletian was a Croat, Maximian a Serb, Constantius Chlorus was an Illyrian, while Galerius was a Thracian, in the military tradition of the emperor Maximinus Thrax. Most of the emperors succeeding Commodus were not Italians. But they were all Roman citizens, as was Zeno. To consider that certain powerbrokers in the later empire somehow couldn’t be emperor themselves and hid behind tame Roman emperors seems simply wrong, and Chris Wickham holds the same view in his recent book The Inheritance of Rome.

Most of the so-called Gothic commanders involved in the Sack of Rome in AD410 had been born after AD378 and the battle of Adrianople, so they were as Roman as anyone else. By the time Euric rebelled against the emperor Anthemius, a Greek, neither was more Roman than the other. Anthemius was put into office by Ricimer, his son-in-law, a Frank. We have no evidence of any Frankish or Gothic commander speaking anything but Latin.

Isaurians were politically distinct from the peoples around them, but not culturally so. Another comparison with a recent group would be with the Don Cossacks, whose name suggests a link with the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan. Like the Cossacks, there may have been a difference of lifestyle, but the Isaurians are clearly linked to the other states which emerged after the end of the Hittite empire in Asia Minor. We might also compare them with the Basques, who in the western Pyrenees survived the Romans, Goths, Moors and Franks, or the Highlander groups who fought the English as fiercely as they fought the lowland Scots before them.

Just as poverty drew the Scots and Irish into the British forces, it seems to have drawn marginal people into the Roman army, among them the Isaurians.

The House of Theodosius
Zeno spent many years rising in Roman service in the east. It’s worth tracing the dynastics of the eastern empire in the fifth century. Theodosius II, despite having his name on a famous Roman law code, did nothing during his 42 years on the throne, just shy of the reign of Augustus, and his sister Pulcheria ran the empire the whole time until her death in 453. In 450, after the death of Theodosius, she married the Illyrian general Marcian to make him emperor, which in turn ennobled his daughter to marry Anthemius, later western emperor.

Emperor Theodosius II

Pulcheria, emperor in all but name

Marcian, emperor and husband of Pulcheria

The house of Valentinian and Theodosius ended with the death of Marcian in 457, when another powerful soldier, Leo Marcellus from Dacia, was given the eastern throne. His daughter Ariadne married Zeno; their son Leo II briefly inherited the imperial title in 474 for a matter of months with Zeno as co-emperor; on his son’s death late in 474, Zeno became emperor.

Emperor Leo I


Succession idealised father-to-son transmission, derived in part from biblical models, but in practice emperors married their daughters to rising generals. It was a throw of the dice which put Zeno on the throne at the moment the western succession collapsed. Zeno faced a claim to the throne by Basiliscus, the brother of Verina, Leo’s wife, who was proclaimed emperor in Constantinople on 9 January 475 and tried to reign for 19 months until he in turn was overthrown and Zeno restored in August 476. The beneficiaries of the rout of the Isaurians were Ostrogoths, led by cousins Theodoric Strabo (‘squinty’) and Theodoric ‘the Amal’. Inevitably men of Germanic background dominated the new imperial close protection squad called excubitores.

It matches the English Wars of the Roses for dynastic complexity. So it was only a few days after his restoration to the throne that Zeno received the returned imperial insignia from Odoacer in Ravenna which ended the succession of emperors in Italy.

The Empire Need Not Have Ended
Given the closeness of timing, we should assume that Odoacer intended to surrender the insignia to Basiliscus, not Zeno. Perhaps Odoacer never intended the line of emperors to end with Romulus Augustulus, but to have become western emperor himself and that in formally surrendering the insignia to Basiliscus, he would receive it back with an ennoblement to become emperor in his turn. Given the weeks it would take to get messages even by sea between Ravenna and Constantinople, Odoacer could not have known it would be Zeno and not Basiliscus who would receive it.

We can think beck for a moment to the death of the emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378. On his death, his nephew Gratian was the only Augustus with authority to reign (Valentinian II was a small child). Although he eventually made Theodosius Augustus of the East, initially he only made him Magister Equitum, commander of the imperial army in the east and it was five months later when Gratian elevated him as Augustus on 19 January 379 (see Thomas Burns’ Barbarians within the Gates of Rome, p.43). It is highly likely that Theodosius, son-in-law of Valens, had to hand the imperial regalia of the east to Gratian, and received it back when he was made emperor nearly half a year later.

Moreover, Odoacer is considered by many, including the ‘Byzantine’ historian John Malalas, to have been the nephew of Basiliscus. If that is so, then it looks increasingly likely that, like Theodosius, Odoacer expected to be made emperor. Basiliscus made his own son junior Augustus, so that would not be a surprise. On deposing Zeno. Basiliscus encouraged the mob to murder all Isaurians in Constantinople. He extorted  heavy taxes from the empire and allowed Constantinople to suffer a significant fire, that destroyed the library of Julian, which had existed for 110 years. It is ironic that the years which saw the end of the western empire also destroyed a lot of ‘pagan’ literature in the east.

Usurping Emperor Basiliscus

 Basiliscus also got himself caught up in one of the less interesting Christian controversies, and flip-flopped alarmingly. His sister, Verina, seems to have been involved in an intrigue against him, planning to marry the magister officiorum Patricius and have him made emperor. Patricius was murdered and Basiliscus lived. His two terms as consul and his former high command of imperial forces west and east seem not to have honed his judgement.

His nephews Odoacer, Onoulphus (Hunwulf) and Armatus formed shifting alliances, illustrated by their polyethnic names; their father Edekon had been an officer for Attila the Hun, and had or took a Hunnic name, yet later joined the Roman army as did his sons. Ethnic identity seems to have been malleable to say the least. Basiliscus was therefore a Hun or Hunnic ally too – the three brothers were his side of the family. We may be beginning to see the start of the practice, seen in Frankish Gaul, where names are given in expectation of  career involvement in Church or army, either in childhood or as an adult. Nor should we be surprised by sibling rivalry, which since Romulus has shaped power relations in antiquity. Those of the sons of Clovis and those of Louis the Pious were just as toxic.

Basiliscus sent out Illus and Trocundus, two Isaurian brothers and imperial generals, among the few left in the capital after the emperor had massacred most of them. The two brothers may have been from a rival grouping. They went to kill Zeno, but were suborned by the Senate to restore Zeno instead, which they did.

The complexity of this situation is reflected in the consulship. In 476, the consuls were Basiliscus (the for the second time) and Armatus. There were no consuls picked at all in 477, and in 478 Illus alone and 479 Zeno alone. Between 478 and 500 there are many consuls appointed sine collega (without a colleague). Western consuls ended in 534 and eastern ones in 541. As emperors became kings, there was little need for consuls to confuse things and Justinian simply abolished the position. The Greek title of the Roman emperor basileus always meant king anyway.

So the return of Zeno saw the return of the Isaurians, among whom he had sat out his interregnum, excluding his brother Longinus, who was held a hostage for ten years by Illus.

The best modern history of this I know is by Peter Heather, best known as the expert on the Goths. His book The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (Pan 2014) untangles this almighty mess with bravura and wit.

When Zeno died in 491, the mob in Constantinople called for a proper Roman emperor rather than accept Zeno’s brother Longinus (who had been consul in 486), so the dowager empress Ariadne provided them with Anastasius, one of her former silentarii (senatorial rank officials). He led the empire into a war with the Isaurians.

We have been able to see that it was not forbidden for a ‘barbarian’ to become emperor. Most of the emperors after Commodus were from outlandish backgrounds, probably because they were better fighters. Nearly all of the commanders who became kings were culturally Christians and legally Romans.